This Sunday is a difficult time to reflect on the readings we have from Scripture. Like most Sundays, like most close examinations of the Gospel and the Word of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are challenging exhortations, instructions, and means according to which we must evaluate our lives and commitments. However, the international reality and tension of the humanitarian crisis in Syria with its accompanying specter of war rests heavily on our global shoulders. I have not written here about Syria so far without a few exceptions for encouraging prayer. There are reasons for this, not the least of which being not knowing where to begin in my comments. I have spoken informally to many friends and theological colleagues, read numerous articles and op-eds, and reflected on the commitments of Christian life as presented to us in the Gospel and the tradition of a living community that spans millennia. Today’s readings might help make some sense of what to do and how to think.
If we begin with the selection from the Book of Wisdom (9:13-18b), we see how it is amazingly poignant today. This is the end of a pericope known as “Solomon’s prayer for wisdom.” The leader of the People of Israel appeals to God for the guidance, wisdom, and inspiration that he recognizes human “wisdom” does not offer. As Michael Kolarcik, SJ, writes in a commentary on this passage:
Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Solomon’s recognition of his need for wisdom is a paradigm for humanity, particularly for our own time, when our technical knowledge has grown exponentially. There is a fundamental distinction in Solomon’s prayer between knowledge and wisdom. Solomon is acutely aware of both the limits and the strengths of his knowledge. Knowledge represents the human familiarity with the world that enable people to move or act within it. It bestows the power to act. But how will Solomon act?
This, too, is our question: How will we act?
Perhaps more importantly, this is the question that haunts the civil leaders of our world at a time when some call for a response to violence with more violence. The desire to intervene in the attacks of the Syrian government on its own people is, I have no doubt, rooted in a good intention. However, war — even “tailored, strategic strikes” — doesn’t provide a solution to the most fundamental concern at the moment. As Drew Christiansen, SJ, said on PBS this week, “the missile strike doesn’t do the most essential thing, which is saving the people of Syria. And we could do more if we spent the money we’re spending on bombs on caring for the refugees.”
I believe that our commandment to love our neighbors, to care for our sisters and brothers demands of us some intervention in what is happening to those who suffer such injustice and atrocity around the world. But must we always see solution through the lens of military action?
While I am not a politician or an expert on international policy and therefore unable to offer the sort of constructive suggestions that so many are clamoring for when the question of military intervention is taken off the table, I nevertheless believe that the “easy answer” of strikes will not solve the problem. Reports from the region have also suggested that this is not the course of action the people who are being attacked in Syria want either. Something must be done, but not from the drone-control centers located safely around the United States nor from the weapon stores aboard the Naval Fleet poised for attack in the Mediterranean.
The Wisdom of God for which Solomon prays is the wisdom we need to pray for today.
Today’s Gospel is a continuation of this summer’s Ordinary-Time series of difficult passages, which offer a sober reminder to all the baptized that we are de facto in for a difficult time when it comes to following in the footprints of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus doesn’t advocate arbitrary hatred of one’s family and friends in the sort of way that a cult-leader might siphon off the familial ties of potential adherents. No, Jesus is really just stating the obvious about the care and consideration that must be taken in responding to God’s call to follow Christ.
Like someone who is planning a construction project, like a civil leader planning a military intervention, Christians must consider what it means to follow through with what they’ve committed to and how they’re to live in this world. Like Solomon, our challenge is to recognize that living in this world according to the Gospel means eschewing the wisdom of the world for the wisdom of God. And, in doing that, we might upset those around us — even, at times, those close to us.
I don’t have all the answers, nor does Pope Francis or anybody else. But we do have the Gospel. We have the call to live in the tension that beckons us to seek peace in the world, but a peace nevertheless that “the world cannot give.” The peace of Christ, which comes not from bombs or poisonous gas, but from the love of peacemaking, reconciliation, and support. We must oppose any more violence, while at the same time working — seriously working — to end the violence and injustice in Syria (and elsewhere!) according to peaceful means.